School Climate & Safety

School Police and Civil Rights: A Primer for Administrators

By Evie Blad — February 21, 2019 6 min read
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What can the arrest of one student explain about larger conversations over school policing?

An 11-year-old boy was arrested at his Florida school earlier this month after a substitute teacher questioned his refusal to say the pledge of allegiance. The student doesn’t say the pledge as a protest of racism, his mother told reporters.

The incident provides a window into civil rights’ groups concerns about calls to assign more law enforcement to schools in an effort to make them safer. But school shootings, which usually spark such discussions, are quite rare, and the day-to-day effects of school policing on students of color are often overlooked, they say.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that schools can’t force students to participate in patriotic demonstrations like saying for the pledge. But the Polk County school district says the 6th grader’s Feb. 4 arrest was not for his refusal to say the pledge, but for his disruptive behavior after the teacher confronted him over his decision, the New York Times reports. The student “refused to leave the classroom after being asked multiple times, threatened ‘to beat’ the teacher, said he would have everyone fired and called the teacher, dean of students, school resource officer and principal racists,” officials said, according to the Associated Press.

Groups like the ACLU of Florida have used the incident and others like it to question moves to add more police to schools around the country following last year’s school shooting in Parkland, Fla. Most school police officers will never face an active shooter, and schools need to be mindful of the more routine interactions with students they will have every day, they say. School-based officers often don’t have clear limitations for how they should interact with students, says the ACLU, and educators often rely on them to handle routine disciplinary issues that aren’t criminal.

“This is a prime example of the over-policing of Black students in school,” the ACLU of Florida said of the student’s arrest.

The incident raises several questions: How would the dispute have been handled if there hadn’t been an officer assigned to the school? Would the child’s behavior have been considered severe enough to warrant a call to outside law enforcement? What directions should schools give on-site police and school resource officers about their roles?

A Surge in School Police

Such questions are particularly timely in Florida, which is one of several states that moved quickly to increase the presence of police and security personnel in schools following the Parkland shooting. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, passed less than a month after the shooting, includes a mandate of at least one “school guardian” or police officer in each of the state’s schools. Florida districts scrambled to screen, hire, and train new officers to comply with the requirement, as other states expanded funding for school police.

“It’s unlike anything we’ve experienced...” said Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, which trains school law enforcement. “We’ve never experienced this level of training, volume, and demand. It’s just been extraordinarily high.”

And, while school police have typically been more common in middle and high schools, many of those new officers are staffing elementary schools for the first time. That is a very different job from beat policing, Canady said, and it requires a special kind of officer who is comfortable working with children.

There are some civil rights groups asking whether police belong in schools at all. It’s a hard question to raise amid conversations about school safety, civil rights advocates say.

“After Parkland, we saw what is the typical, knee-jerk reaction from politicians,” Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project, told Education Week in an interview for our project about how the Stoneman Douglas shooting changed school safety debates. “The elected officials move very quickly to put more police in schools and young people of color start to feel the burden of what happened, even though they were not involved, their schools were not the targets of these events, the shooters don’t even look like them in terms of race, but they start to feel the brunt of that pressure.”

An analysis of federal data by Child Trends found that majority-black middle and high schools are more likely than others to have numbers of police and security that outnumber mental health and student support personnel.

Black students are sometimes subject to violent treatment by school police, the Advancement Project and other groups say. And broad state laws and school rules against behavior like “defiance” are often subjectively applied, leading to arrests for behavior that should be handled in the principal’s office, they say. A South Carolina student, for example, was violently dragged from her desk for refusing to surrender her cell phone. Her classmate, who was also arrested for recording a video of the incident, joined other students in challenging the state’s broad law against “disturbing a school.”

Problematic Behavior by School Police

In addition to the Florida student’s arrest, civil rights groups have flagged several recent school police interactions as problematic, including a Hazelton, Pa., school officer who punched a girl and forcefully pulled her hair as he responded to a fight in the lunch room.

NASRO recommends that school police officers are trained in areas like de-escalating conflict and working with teenagers. The organization also calls upon schools to sign agreements with police agencies that outline the limits of police interaction with students, and it says officers should not be involved in school discipline.

Such guidance was included in an Obama-era directive on school discipline that was recently repealed by the Trump administration at the recommendation of its school safety commission. Some parents in Parkland were also concerned that their district’s agreement with police placed too many limits on officers’ ability to arrest students, creating a “culture of permissiveness.”

Twenty-five percent of school police officers responding to an Education Week Research Center survey last year said they had no prior experience working with youth, and 19 percent said they had been given insufficient training to work in a school environment. While 93 percent said they’d been trained to respond to an active shooter, only 54 percent said they had been trained to work with special education students, who are protected by federal laws that prohibit discipline for behaviors related to diagnosed disabilities.

In some communities, student groups have protested plans to add school police, saying their presence makes them feel less safe.

In other communities, parents point to concerns about active shooters in demands for more armed adults in schools, including police.

Beyond the decision of whether or not to have officers on-site in the first place, schools will continue to grapple with not only training officers, but with training other school staff how to work with them.

In the case of the Florida student, for example, was it appropriate to call the officer to the classroom in the first place? Could the teacher have de-escalated the interaction with the student before it became problematic? Should the teacher have questioned the protest at all if it didn’t disrupt the class? Are schools doing enough to ensure substitute teachers are aware of their policies around student discipline and classroom behavior?

Photo: Getty Images

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.